Imagine you are walking down a dark street alone at night. Suddenly you hear a noise behind you. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action getting you ready to run away or turn around and fight the stranger who you believe to be following you. Your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate to search your surroundings for a safe place to run too and all your blood redirects away from you internal organs an towards your limbs to help you run. You are in a state of stress and so you should be, this is our innate reaction to danger. It’s the clever way we humans are designed to protect ourselves.
Now imagine that you stop walking, switch on a torch, turn around and shine the light behind you to find that it is just a young woman walking alone, looking as nervous as you are to be out alone in the dark. You feel a great sense of relief and now that the danger has passed your parasympathetic nervous system takes over to return your body to a state of equilibrium. Your heart rate slows, your blood pressures drops, the blood begins to circulate to your vital organs again and all is well
When we have a fearful or stressful thought, our bodies have the same (if slightly less pronounced) fight or flight reaction. We think about the interview we have tomorrow, a deadline we might miss, or the public speaking event we have planned and the stress response activates in our bodies. A lot of the time we are lost in stressful thoughts without being aware of it and so our poor bodies are in a low-level stress response for much of the day. The anxious thoughts are like the stranger following us down the dark street.
We can over come this by using mindfulness practice as the torch-light that we shone on the stranger. When we bring our awareness to our thoughts, and question them, we are shining a light on them and they are no longer a threat to us. They are just thoughts.
Developing a mindful meditation practice helps to develop awareness of the thoughts and emotions that are with us throughout each day. We can learn to observe the thoughts without getting carried away by them. We become masters of our minds rather than being mastered by our minds, and ultimately we feel the benefit in our bodies as our stress and anxiety levels diminish.
If I were to describe mindfulness to you, I would say it is an awareness, a noticing of what is happening right now. So when I received a letter recently explaining to me that I had been caught speeding by a camera positioned close to my home, I realised I had not been practising mindfulness recently. I had not noticed the camera and I had not even realised that I was speeding. I was in such a rush to get where I was going, my thoughts were half an hour ahead imagining being late to meet my friend and the possible outcome of that, or in the past, why hadn’t I set of earlier, I should have finished work on time. So I had clearly proven to myself, that when you move through the day mindlessly it tends to make life more difficult. So this was my first lesson in mindfulness taught to me by the speed camera.
I was offered the opportunity to attend a speed awareness course rather than have 3 penalty points of my drivers licence. I reluctantly attended the course expecting it to be dull, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Apart from learning a lot about road safety and feeling embarrassed at my lack of knowledge on the highway code! I heard words of wisdom which by can be directly transferred to the practice of mindfulness in day-to-day life. And so I got my second lesson in mindfulness from the speed awareness instructor.
The instructor asked “how do we feel when we are speeding in our cars and driving erratically?” We responded that it can feel stressful and frustrating, we make mistakes and miss turn offs. “So” the instructor then asks “how does it feel to drop back, take it a little slower, leave more space between us and the next car?” After some thought we all admit it would feel more relaxed, we would have more space and time to respond appropriately, we would probably, actually get there quicker and more safely.
It struck me that this is exactly what we are achieving when we live mindfully. It is allowing more space and time. We have time to respond calmly rather than react hastily to life events. Things “go right” more often because we are not rushing or cutting corners. By taking more time we probably are more effective and achieve things in a more timely manner. So since my speed awareness course, I have been mindful of my speed when driving and I have to admit that driving is a much more relaxing experience. I have also tried to bring this reduced pace into my life, and so far so good. I still get my work done on time, I am more effective and the stress is lifted. The only way I can describe it is that I have more “space” in the day in subtle ways that make me feel better.
Challenge yourself to consciously slow down in everything that you do for a whole day and see how it feels. I promise you, you will like it.
How many times do you say to a friend or colleague “this year seems to be speeding by so quickly” or “every year seems to pass by faster”? I was talking to a man who is in 70’s just this week about this, and he glumly told me that “as you get older the years flyby faster and faster!” So I got to thinking about this, because we know for sure that time isn’t passing any faster. There are still 24 hours in each day and 60 minutes in each hour. So the problem just might be that we all are becoming increasingly mindless, spending most of my days on autopilot and missing most of each day.
Mark Williams and Danny Penman talk about this in their book Mindfulness, A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. They say…
If you are 30 years old, then with a life expectancy of 80 you have 50 years left. But if you are only truly conscious and aware of every moment perhaps 2 out of 16 hours ( which is not unreasonable), your life expectancy is only another 6 years and 3 months.
Put in these terms, it seems essential to start increasing the amount of time we spend being mindful and wake up to our life’s.
Many are missing out on the benefits of meditation practice due to their beliefs about what it is, and what it isn’t. So here is a little meditation myth busting. 1. It is a religious practice Although mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism it is not affiliated to any religion. You can practice mindful meditation no matter what religion you are (and even if you have no religion). 2. You have to sit cross legged for hours You can practice meditation in any position you like! An upright and alert position is best but this can be on the floor or a chair. If you prefer you can lie down but this often leads to falling asleep. 3. Meditation is complicated and I’m no good at it You cannot get mindful meditation wrong. If you are being still that’s great, if you are able to watch the breath and explore the breath, that’s even better. It is not about having an empty mind. It is about paying attention, and developing awareness of thoughts and emotions as the arise. The more thoughts that arise, the more opportunity you have to flex your mindful muscles. 4. It will make me too placid and complacent You will not lose your drive to strive through meditation, but you will have space to look at what you’re striving for and why. You will gain clarity and focus. 5. Meditation practice requires too much time The more meditation practice you can do the better it is but any amount of stillness is beneficial. If you don’t have time for a seated practice, try introducing mindfulness into you daily routine. See my previous posts entitled 5 easy ways to turn frustrating situations into calming mindful pauses and savour the simple things. 6. I don’t have time to meditate Just 5 minutes of stillness in your day would benefit you. The more busy you feel the more you will benefit from finding stillness. There is an old zen saying that you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes per day, unless you are too busy, then you should sit for an hour.
If you are contemplating starting a mindful meditation practice, or you are struggling to keep up with your practice, here are some important reasons to keep going. Don’t forget you cannot get this wrong. Even a moment of stillness is worthwhile.
You may forget where your doctor’s surgery is
Research has shown that regular meditators visit their doctor less often. They have reduced levels of stress and stress associated illness such as high blood pressure. It also boost immune function.
You might live longer
There is evidence to show that meditators are more content and suffer less anxiety and depression, and these happy emotions are linked to longevity.
There is no excuse for forgetting your anniversary
Meditators have improved memory function and enjoy more fulfilling relationships. Is this because they remember the important dates like anniversaries and birthdays?
Increased resilience in the face of chronic disease
Meditators reduce the negative impact of chronic conditions such as pain and fatigue.
These side effects are much more pleasant that many drug side effects used to treat anxiety, depression, hypertension and pain. So let’s start using meditation as preventative medicine and improve our quality of life in the process.
One of my favourite speakers, authors and thought leaders about mindfulness is John Kabat-Zinn. He is the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts and he has written many books on mindfulness.
He wrote this poem which to me, totally embodies what mindfulness is, and how mindfulness feels. It is impossible not be moved by the possibility of feeling the essence of what is captured in his words. I hope you enjoy these words as much as I do.
‘Poem’, by Jon Kabat-Zinn,
A Taste of Mindfulness
“Have you ever had the experience of stopping so completely,
of being in your body so completely,
of being in your life so completely,
that what you knew and what you didn’t know,
that what had been and what was yet to come,
and the way things are right now,
no longer held even the slightest hint of anxiety or discord,
a moment of complete presence beyond striving,
beyond mere acceptance,
beyond the desire to escape or fix anything or plunge ahead,
a moment of pure being,
no longer in time,
a moment of pure seeing,
a moment in which life simply is,
and that is-ness grabs you by all your senses,
all your memories, by your very genes,
by your loves,
and welcomes you home,
that is a taste of mindfulness.”
We all long for more time. More time to ourselves, more peace and quiet, more rest and less activity. Unfortunately though, when we get the time to be still, we are so uncomfortable in the stillness that we just fill it up with more “stuff”. I’m guilty of this myself this morning which is what has prompted me to write this post. For the first time in weeks, I have the house to myself and not a single activity on the agenda for today. I feel agitated, I have wandered around the house, done the house work, watched TV and tried to entice a friend out for a walk and it is not even ten o clock yet!
If we sit in stillness, often thoughts or feeling arise that we are normally distracted from by all our activity. So we inflict the busy-ness onto ourselves to keep these thoughts and feelings at bay.
Jon Kabat-Zinn Said,
Non-doing has nothing to do with being indolent or passive. Quite the contrary. It takes great courage and energy to cultivate non-doing, both in stillness and in activity. Nor is it easy to make a special time for non-doing and to keep at it in the face of everything in our lives which needs to be done.
So the next time you have a precious half an hour to yourself, surrender to stillness. Sit comfortably and just breath. If thoughts or feeling arise that make you uncomfortable, try to just sit with it for a while. Notice what it feels like to sit with the urge to “do” and not act on it. Focus on the breath coming into the body and going out of the body. After a time the discomfort will soften and move further away. Do this for as long as it feels OK to do so. Give yourself credit for taking the time out to be still before you go back to your activities of the day.